I’ve just finished reading a fascinating historical diary – The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister. This was roughly the era of Jane Austen and the Brontes, but the added twist is that she was a lesbian and talks about her relationships and feelings about other women. (Rather like Samuel Pepys, she wrote those parts in a sort of code she had devised.)
It is predictable that she would be seen as some sort of heroine by feminists, but trust me girls, she wasn’t. She was simply a lesbian at a time when it was impossible to be open about it and coped the best she could. There is some nonsense in the blurb by Jeanette Winterson extolling her as ‘a woman exercising conscious choice. She controlled her cash and her body” etc. She controlled her cash because…well, she was rich. She controlled her body by not getting married because she was rich enough not to need to.
She wasn’t open about her lesbianism, but in fact reading between the lines it seems clear that everyone realised that she was one (one obituary euphemistically referred to her ‘masculine singularities of character’) yet it didn’t seem to cause her any problems.
The fact is that she wasn’t any sort of trailblazer (but then, why should she be?) and in fact I was surprised that far from being an outcast, she wasn’t shunned because of her sexuality but because she was clearly a terrible snob, who constantly refers to people of a lower class (ie most people) as ‘vulgar’, and who missed out on the chance of a relationship because it was beneath her to visit her family.
But she was fascinating, it is a great read, and I would have loved to have met her – though she would have considered it highly impertinent that someone of my class should try to engage her in conversation!
Apart from the business about her sexuality, it’s the little things about daily life that I love about diaries like this. Take this from 10 Jane 1824:
Washed and scaled my teeth with my penknife (in previous similar entry said she was sure she’d got rid of all the tartar with her trusty blade). And on another occasion she had a tooth extracted – no anaesthetic of course – and although didn’t come out easily, she tells us, it went very well considering – he only took a little of the jawbone with it.
On the 12 January she recounts two stories. The first concerns ‘Cockle Dick of Halifax’ – His wife used to drink & he sent the bell-man [ie the man who walked the streets ringing a bell and declaring the time, and perhaps also acted as a town crier regarding news] to give notice that he would not pay her debts. He turned her out of the house, & being summoned before Dr Coulthurst [probably a magistrate] to take her back, he declared he would not for she would be the ruin of him.
Then there is the tale she was told of wives being Cried [ie the bell-man again] two market days at the market cross & sold the last day & ‘livered in a halter. He said Phoebe Buck, the leech-woman still living…was sold in this way & bought by Buck, the man she lived with ever after.
Beats online dating, if you ask me.